Ishmael’s Story: A Fragmented Bildungsroman

In David Guterson’s award-winning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars, the story centers around the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, using the testimony as a vehicle to tell a multigenerational story about the island’s fraught history from the perspective of many different characters. With each testimony and flashback, the reader gets a small, fractured piece of each character’s identity and personal history that they must stitch together to create a holistic profile of the character. For some, the sum of these pieces is large, painting a thorough picture of the character’s identity and growth. For others, the reader are given mere wisps of information. Throughout the book, the character who gets arguably the most time and development dedicated to his story is a figure whose connection to the trial, at least at the beginning, seems merely tangential: Ishmael Chambers, the reporter. Through fragmented pieces of testimony, flashback, and dialogue, Gutterson tells a rich, holistic, and arcing story of Ishmael’s coming-of-age from ten years old to his mid-thirties. In this way, the novel becomes a sort of fragmented bildungsroman about Ishmael and his eternal quest to “recognize his place in the world” (Howe). Though Ishmael gets his full story told, it is by no means the novel’s only story — different from usual coming-of-age stories which tend to focus on the linear development of a single character. Instead, Guterson integrates Ishmael’s bildungsroman into the drama of the trial and mingles it with many other stories, showing that everyone’s journey — however personal or individualistic it may be — is ultimately connected to everyone else’s and it’s stakes often reach far beyond our own stories.

Traditionally, a bildungsroman novels focuses on the linear development of character’s moral, intellectual, and psychological selves as they come to “recognize their place in the world” (Howe). However, Guterson chooses to introduce Ishmael towards the end of his trajectory — at a time when he seems bitterly, but ambiguously rejecting of any community as his “place” — and instead works (somewhat-sporadically) backwards, detailing Ishmael’s cyclical uptake and loss of community and place in the world. As readers, we are first introduced to Ishmael in his reprised role as a journalist, one he has inherited from his father. Within his hometown, doing his father’s job, Ishmael finds comfort in the protective, secluded unity of Amity Harbor — a place where he could be “one of them.” However, Ishmael still seems to carry a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, constantly reminded that San Piedro is not “where he wants to be” and perturbed by feelings of exclusion from the fisherman-camaraderie that exists for most other men on the island. The origins of this placelessness seem originally ambiguous but gain clarity with the first revelation (or rather, more detailed description) about Ishmael’s past: he is a veteran. Drawing back into the past, Guterson blames Ishmael’s inability to “emulate his father” or find “his place” within the community of journalists “on this matter of the war—this matter of the arm he’d lost.” In doing so, however, Guterson ironically places Ishmael in his first (or last, if we are thinking chronologically) community, one of veterans, even if it is a community defined by “disturbed…cynicism” and the sense of something missing.

After moving backwards into the past order to give the reader a shallow understanding of Ishmael’s bitter origins, Guterson switches tacts and starts from the beginning: ten year old Ishmael meeting ten year old Hatsue. Here is where the bildungsroman truly begins to take shape. Classically, these coming-of-age stories feature their main character as stuck within an “unbending social order” and mark the developmental spark of a character’s internal conflict, usually regarding their decision to strive against these constructs (Howe). Bonding with Hatsue over their shared love of the ocean, Ishmael timidly pushes the boundaries of the island’s tense race-relations and feels “a knot of pressure building inside him” — the brewing conflict between his growing love for Hatsue and “the judgments enforced by the [island’s] unbending social order” that separate the Japanese from the white people (Howe). In a decision that could be called his bildungsroman Call (an action against the social order that spurs the character on their journey towards spiritual or psychological growth), Ishmael kisses Hatsue and “decides then that he would love her forever no matter what came to pass..despite [his worry] that this kiss was wrong.” This decision marks the beginning of a long romance between the two, at once childishly “gentle” and dangerously clandestine. Inside of their cedar tree, Ishmael finds his first “place in the world.” Despite the rebellious, intense nature of Ishmael’s relationship with Hatsue, however, this period of time functions less as the maturation stage of Ishmael’s Bildungsroman and more as an extension of his “hero’s call.” Unlike Hatsue, Ishmael remains naively ignorant of the true impracticality of their relationship and instead enshrines it with an immature sense of romantic, beautiful rebellion.

As a result of this idealism, when Hatsue is forced into the internment camps and ends her relationship with Ishmael, he is met with bitter, profound disappointment that sets him on a new path of heightened emotional complexity (another common characteristic of bildungsroman novels). This moment serves as a turning point for Ishmael into a stage of long-suffering “maturation,” characterized by a sense of internal anguish as he attempts reconcile his love for Hatsue and his resentment of her, his desire to live up to his father’s journalistic integrity and his desire to be angry, his belief in universal unfairness and in personal responsibility. Joining the army and losing his arm (an event that he indirectly blames Hatsue for, curing “that Jap bitch”), begging a married-Hatsue to “hold him,” and failing to survive school in seattle, Ishmael evolves into the bitter, morally ambiguous person we meet in the beginning of the novel. Now, however, the reader understands that the war is not the cause of Ishmael’s internal unrest. Hatsue is. His missing arm is but an emblem for his missing love. Neither protestants nor advice swaying Ishmael from this state, it seems that he would anguish away in this state of emotional limbo had it not been for the information he discovered proving Kabuo’s innocence. This discovery serves as a pivotal moment in Ishmael’s bildungsroman, forcing him to decide once and for all whether to scorn Hatsue or save her. Ultimately, spurred on by a reminder of Hatsue’s former love and faith in his “large…heart,” Ishmael cycles back to his Call stage and chooses to be the romantic,rebel, hero he built himself up as once again. This time, though, it comes not from a naive belief that he can be with Hatsue, but from a genuine desire to be the “gentle and kind” person “who will do great things,” for Hatsue, for his father, and (finally) for himself.

Focusing on Ishmael, it is easy to become swept up in his rich and dynamic character arch, seeing every other relationship and event in the novel as somehow a tangential component of this central story. Ultimately, however, Guterson’s choice to include such a well-developed bildungsroman within the larger vignette-style narrative of the trial serves an important point: Ishmael’s coming of age — though deeply-personal and largely an internal shift — affects everyone around him. Traditionally, bildungsromans and hero-epics follow a single character, focusing on how their choices affect their own trajectory. Little is said about what they leave in their wakes. In Ishmael’s case, however, his pivotal decision to hand in the information is not just a moment of personal revelation but a choice that can, quite literally, determine whether another man lives or dies. For every moment we watch Ishmael pine over Hatsue, we see her embroiled in her own internal conflict of shame, confusion, and conflicting cultural expectations that he seems entirely ignorant of. As Ishmael vacillates between a racist hatred for the Japanese and an simultaneous urge to defend them, we watch San Piedro’s Japanese population struggle to navigate these same blurred lines. This ironically becomes Ishmael’s primary character flaw and source of his immaturity: he sees his life as a bildungsroman. Within this mindset, he allows himself to make decisions out of hatred, unrequited love, and desperation — as though these choices are mere building blocks of personal development — and fails, time and again, to see the implications these choices have on the people around him.

In his sweeping novel Snow Falling On Cedars, which spans generations and shares the often conflicting stories many different characters, Guterson paints an intimate and detailed picture of San Piedro Island and it’s fraught history. Among each of the narrative’s given for each of the characters, Ishmael’s story stands out. It is both longer and more detailed than the rest (except maybe for Hatsue’s) and unlike any of the other narratives, it details dynamic and powerful character growth. As Ishmael grows from a naive, idealist young boy into a bitter, conflicted man and finally, in the end, into a more balanced, mature, and fulfilled person, his story takes on the trajectory of a bildungsroman. However, unlike the traditional coming-of-age novel in which the focus remains fixed on its main character, Snow Falling on Cedars explores the impact Ishmael’s internal story has on the world around him. Ultimately, it demonstrates that no matter how individualistic, how solipsistic our personal journeys may seem, they are inevitably entangled within the stories of everyone around us.

Reason and Chance

“There are things in this universe that we cannot control, and then there are the things we can…let fate, coincidence, and accident conspire; human beings must act on reason” (Guterson 418). Reason, especially in the eyes and hands of human beings, is a very fickle thing in David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars. It is applied and interpreted in different ways by different people, and often, it is incorrectly done so. Etta Heine believes it is pure reason that causes her to ignore the agreement between her dead husband and Zenhichi Miyamoto and instead sell her land to Ole Jurgensen; however, it is only undiluted prejudice. Despite this, there are also those on San Piedro Island who do understand reason in both concept and practice. Nels Gudmundsson is an examples of one of these people, as is Kabuo Miyamoto. On the island of San Piedro, reason and the lack there of collide constantly, leaving indelible stains on all of the islanders. It is the colliding of reason and irrationalism that controls the lives of all of the islanders and that brings them all to where they are when Kabuo Miyamoto is tried for murder.

In Snow Falling on Cedars, Nels Gudmundsson is one of the few characters to represent reason. Though he is in his late seventies with declining health, his intelligence remains highly astute. There is no attorney that could do better by Kabuo Miyamoto, for no attorney could be as willing and capable as Nels to look past skin color and eye slant and the general blind belief of the island that Kabuo is guilty, because of these physical characteristics. Nels’ treatment of his client is that of the utmost humanity and respect, without the vicious pervasion of prejudice so prevalent among most of San Piedro Island. In courtroom recesses, he steps away and encourages the deputy Abel Martinson to do the same so that Kabuo and his wife Hatsue may speak in private, unseparated by a pane of glass. When they first meet, Nels brings Kabuo two chocolate bars without acknowledging his charity, something he knew Kabuo would find humiliating. In the same visit, Nels also shows Kabuo his complete indifference to skin color over a friendly game of chess by having no preference for the white or black chess pieces. When Nels determines, not decides, that Kabuo is not telling him the whole, honest truth about the events of the night of Carl Heine’s death, he pushes him for the truth without disrespecting him, or for the purpose everyone else has of proving him guilty just because of the color of his skin. He truly wants to do his job to the best of his ability, to help vindicate Kabuo and return him to his family. Nels is able to treat his client with the fairness, equality and open-mindedness so many of the islanders are incapable of because he understands reason. He listens to Kabuo and looks at the facts, and in the courtroom he implores both the jurors and the audience to do the same, and to resist the subtle appeals the prosecutor Alvin Hooks makes to their racism.

Nels is the champion of reason, but his client Kabuo is its steady, quiet proponent. Kabuo withholds the truth for as long as he does, from the sheriff and from Nels, because he has every reason to believe that the truth would be just as, if not more, detrimental to his legal standing. As he tells Nels, “This island [is] full of strong feelings…people who do [not] often speak their minds but hate on the inside all the same…they hate anyone who looks like the soldiers they fought” (391). Kabuo is absolutely accurate in this statement. It is the truth, unaffected by Kabuo’s resentment for it. Kabuo knows that he, like all of the other islanders of Japanese descent, is not trusted by the citizens of San Piedro or by the United States government. He knows that he has been wronged by the family of Carl Heine, the man who was his good friend when they were boys. He knows that they are friends no longer because the men Carl calls enemies during the second World War have similar faces to Kabuo, while the men Kabuo fights in Europe resemble Carl. Kabuo is angry and resentful and haunted when he returns from the war, but not to the point where he decompensates. He retains his ability to rationalize, his understanding and respect of reason, and this is what allows him to help Carl on the night of his death, as morality can best follow reason. Kabuo could have surrendered to pettiness and bitterness, but he never even considers such because he sees Carl stranded in the water with a fully depleted battery, in need of help. He does not push Carl to sell him the seven acres owed to his family because he knows such pressure would only be counterproductive. The presumption among many of the islanders is that Kabuo kills Carl because he wants the land Carl has just recently purchased from Ole Jurgensen, seven acres of which are the ones that were essentially stolen from the Miyamoto family. Kabuo, however, recognizes that “the world [is] one world, and the notion that a man might kill another over some small patch of it [does] not make sense” (321). Kabuo only helps Carl, reaches an agreement about the land, shakes Carl’s hand, and returns to his own boat and leaves. He does nothing unreasonable.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Carl Heine’s mother, Etta. Etta is bitterly, unrelentingly racist, and subsequently incapable of treating Kabuo Miyamoto in the manner reason (as well as basic human decency) demands.She takes advantage of her husband’s death and Carl’s being away at war to sell their farm to Ole Jurgensen, including the seven acres Zenhichi Miyamoto makes all but the last two payments on. These last two payments, due in 1942, are missed only because San Peidro’s entire Japanese population is sent to internment camps far off, where completion of the payments is simply not possible. When Kabuo confronts her about the land owed to him, the land she wastes no time in selling to Ole Jurgensen without regard for the contract between her husband and Kabuo’s father, Etta says “[she has not] done anything a bank would [not] do. [She has not] done anything wrong” (138), a belief to which Kabuo responds “[she has not] done anything illegal…wrong is a different matter” (138). Kabuo is right; Etta does not decide and act according to a sense of right and wrong, she acts according to “a thin veneer of cheap” (301) reason. Her attempt at justification is that there is little economic sense in selling the seven acres to Zenhichi Miyamoto so that when his eldest son Kabuo reaches the age of twenty he may be a landowner. While she does truly care about money, in both this particular instance and in general, it is not, as she asserts, her main concern and source of opposition against the sale. Her reason for such is as abominably simple as racism. Without any evidence to support this, and actually only evidence to the contrary, Etta is distrustful of Zenhichi. As her husband Carl Senior points out, he and his family are hard workers, quiet and neat, but Etta hears none of it because she has already decided, rather than determined, what kind of people the Miyamotos are, just by the color of their skin. Etta employs racism and hate in her assessments, but because of her complete lack of reason, she is unwilling and incapable of recognizing herself as a deplorable, irrational woman.

San Piedro Island is a place full of unspoken hate. No one ever says anything about the discrepancy between the treatment of the white and Japanese citizens, but everyone knows it exists, and most encourage and enable it. They call this reasonable, as the “Japs” cannot be trusted. Most islanders think it perfectly logical to quarantine all Japanese persons living in America because they look like the enemy, and therefore they might actually be. Just as there is no reason behind the internment camps, there is no reason behind the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto. He is there because of racism and the complete absence of rationale that allows for it. Years before Carl Heine even dies, Etta Heine builds the foundation for the accusation of Kabuo by stealing the land owed to him, and she never repents in any way, or even realizes that she should. Luckily for Kabuo, Nels Gudmundsson is a man of reason, a man willing to look at the facts before developing theories rather than developing theories before examining all of the facts, and this is what makes him the best defense attorney for Kabuo. Reason, in the end, triumphs over irrationality.

The Morally Ambiguous Ishmael Chambers

David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars spans three days detailing the murder trial of Japanese-American fisherman and family man Kabuo Miyamoto, all the while shifting in and out of real time to discuss the events leading up to it. Perhaps one of the novel’s most exceptional features is its very personal attention to each and every character; in reminiscing on anecdotes from their pasts, Guterson offers implicit explanations as to why these characters are the way they are and how they came to play their respective roles in the trial. One such character, to whom Guterson pays especially close attention, is Ishmael Chambers. The many facets of Ishmael’s persona–including his occupation as a journalist, his veteranship, and his teenage romance with the defendant’s wife–all contribute to a great deal of moral ambiguity. When ardent love and good ideals clash with spite and prejudice, Ishmael’s judgment is put to the test, but his eventual character arch elucidates an ultimate capacity for compassion–and furthermore, the importance of such compassion in a world of injustice.

The ambiguous nature of Ishmael’s moral compass can first be seen in his childhood; while he is not an outright bad person, he is without a doubt naïve, forceful, and sentimental to a fault. Upon first developing feelings for Hatsue at the age of fourteen, he begins a borderline obsessive pursuit of her, resolving to “love her forever … certain that she [feels] the same way” (100), despite the fact of her running away after their kiss. This fantasy speaks to the degree of naïveté and self-interested obliviousness plaguing Ishmael’s character, but Guterson elaborates shortly thereafter that the fourteen-year-old feels “perturbed, too … worried that the kiss was wrong,” thereby establishing a more morally conscious side in him. Over the following years, as both characters come of age, Ishmael continues to pine after her in a manner which readers might regard as creepy; it is even noted that he might be “labeled a Peeping Tom” (104), which of course does little good for the portrayal of his moral compass. Even after Hatsue does come around, his advances are noticeably too forceful as he initiates sex and a marriage proposal and essentially a huge catharsis of his obsession all at once. And so, by the end of these teenage flashbacks, the lovestruck Ishmael Chambers is left with an ambiguous read. The strength of his love, some might argue, is out of his control, thus making his actions permissible and even admirable. Others, however, might argue that he is immoral–or pitiful, at best–for surrendering his agency to an unhealthy infatuation.

Entering his young adulthood after Hatsue’s inevitable termination of their fling, a change occurs in Ishmael. In potent contrast to his excessively-sentimental past self, he becomes cold and seemingly heartless, partially due to the war and partially due to the breakup. Despite his transformation, however, his moral compass is really not the least bit improved. He merely exchanges his previous character flaws for new ones, exposing himself as a vindictive person prone to extremes and easily influenced by toil. This version of Ishmael becomes perhaps the most unlikable one when, in searching for justification to hate Hatsue, he turns to prejudice. Immediately following his injury in the war, he remarks, “‘that fucking goddamn Jap bitch’” (251) to no one in particular. And at a later run-in with Hatsue at the grocery store, after she asks about his missing arm, he “flatly” tells her that “‘the Japs did it’” (332). His coldness in these moments, most readers will agree, is inhumane and impermissible, pushing him far toward the negative end of the moral spectrum and nearly past redemption in the eyes of Guterson’s more critical readers. And unfortunately, this is the Ishmael that carries over to the real time trial. While slightly less outward with his anger than he was directly after the war, the real-time Ishmael remains quietly haunted by his past sentiments as he stands with “a deliberately controlled hysteria … watching [Hatsue] in the courtroom” (93). At this juncture, needless to say, his moral compass is looking down.

As impossible as it may seem, Ishmael’s redemption does indeed occur, albeit slowly. The trial at hand presents a complex dilemma and a sea of moral ambiguity for the journalist, and three days’ time proves to be just enough for the introspection and change-of-heart required to renew his sense of morality. Naturally, said dilemma lies in his occupation–an occupation burdened with the task of balancing cold, hard truths with personal, empathetic insight. Ishmael, of course, tends towards extremes and consequently struggles with both sides of this balance. His perceptions of truth and empathy alike are skewed by his buried feelings for the defendant’s wife, creating a bias against Kabuo and in favor of the prosecution. This bias is best exemplified when his mother asks about the case, at which point he “grows cold” and replies that he “‘has to think he’s guilty … [because] the evidence is very solidly against him’” (343), despite his own evidence exonerating Kabuo. Again, a frustrating lack of agency becomes evident here as he fails to take ownership of his spite, clinging instead to his cold and falsely impartial façade. Fortunately, Helen Chambers challenges him, saying that he is “‘allowing [himself] an imbalance’” (345) and suggesting that he reconsider. Her response, though simple, is essential to his impending character arch. In the dialogue that follows, he opens up ever so slightly, heeding her advice and discarding a bit of apathy for empathy. His resolve does not become truly fixed, though, until afterwards when he revisits the breakup letter from Hatsue. This letter, in his final moments of reflection before bringing forth the evidence, serves as a physical, concrete connection between past and present. When reading Hatsue’s description of him as “gentle and kind … [with] a large heart,” (442), his present presumably emotionless self is forced to meet his past excessively-sentimental one. And therein lies an affirmation of that imbalance with which he has always struggled, coupled with the realization that he is no longer a person characterized by any bit of kindness or gentleness. In a climactic regrasp of agency, he puts the letter away and exonerates the husband of the woman he loves. He does what is right, no longer a mere bystander but rather a strong character with a strong sense of self and of justice.

Whether to forgive Ishmael for his shortcomings and accept his growth is of course the personal decision of each reader alone, but regardless of such decisions, Ishmael undoubtedly remains a prime example of the struggle toward self-improvement. Guterson has succeeded in reminding readers that there exists a vast grey area on the spectrum of morality, and that people–both real and fictional–have the capability to move up and down that spectrum at will. Being morally conscious and compassionate, though not always an easy choice to make, is a choice nonetheless. And letting that choice pass by is one option, but taking ownership of it and making an unfair world a little fairer–as Ishmael Chambers does–is certainly a better one.